The surprise ending

A very particular aspect of the dramatic structure of The Winter's Tale is the revelation that, contrary to what everyone (except Paulina) – including the audience – believes, Hermione has not died after all.

More on the ‘realism' of Hermione's return: Obviously the realism of this is easily questioned:

  • Leontes was supposed to view the body
  • How is it that nobody noticed what Paulina was up to for sixteen years?

But realism here is irrelevant:

Typical endings

In many of Shakespeare's plays it is not unusual for characters within the play to discover that someone supposedly dead or disappeared has returned:

  • Shakespeare had allowed many of the characters within Much Ado About Nothing to think that Hero had died
  • Only Sebastian and Antonio in Twelfth Night know that Viola's brother has survived the shipwreck
  • In The Tempest Ferdinand thinks he is the only one still alive after the wreck
  • People who have disguised themselves turn up again in As You Like It, King Lear, Cymbeline and several other plays

But in each case the audience knows about these false deaths and these disguises.

An unusual discovery

The unusual aspect of The Winter's Tale is that the audience too are not let into the secret. Hence when Hermione's ‘statue' comes to life, the audience are (or should be in a good production, and if they don't already know the play!) as amazed as all the rest of the characters: Shakespeare has deliberately structured the play so that the moment of her ‘resurrection' will have the maximum impact.

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